Some thoughts on the Finance Minister’s adviser and his critics

The debate around the new Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba’s new adviser, Chris Malikane, has gone beyond the deeply flawed proposals he has made, to claims about his academic credentials and integrity. I want to agree that the proposals are flawed, but that some of the attacks on Malikane are as well. Furthermore, they draw attention to some serious issues in South African academic economics that require mature discussion.

Most of the 8-page ‘manifesto’ published, and extensively publicised in various articles and interviews by Malikane, is not worthy of serious analysis. (Although one effort to take it seriously, by Charles Simkins, is worth reading – as is the more acerbic piece by Richard Poplak). It is primarily a political document and contains no substantive content relating to economic policy and public finance. There’s a crude Marxist analysis of class, and a shopping list of things that should be nationalised and services that should be provided. The only interesting assertion is that the working class should throw their weight behind those black South Africans who have become an elite through corrupt government tenders, rather than through credit-based black empowerment schemes. Like the other assertions, no serious justification is provided. But it certainly explains why Malikane’s radicalism has found favour with Gigaba, whose predecessor appeared to be successfully blocking a range of efforts at tender-related corruption by individuals associated either with the President or the Gupta family. The thinking from Gigaba – a man better known by some for tabloid stories, tailored suits, expensive ties and appearances on Top Billing – may have been that Malikane would provide some solidity to the fig leaf of ‘radical economic transformation’, while Malikane – who has otherwise been quietly exerting influence in left-wing, or trade union movements for some time – clearly thought that his revolutionary moment had arrived.

Some have attempted to defend Malikane on the basis of his academic credentials – to the point of also insisting that his evidently wrong-headed proposals (such as ‘expropriating banks’) cannot be criticised except through detailed academic analysis. At which point it is useful to invoke a phrase attributed to the Italian computer programmer Alberto Brandolini: “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it”. Just because the minister’s adviser has published some academic papers on other subjects does not mean we must presume that his manifesto carries additional weight. Indeed, the primary disappointment for many who had  reasonably high opinion of Malikane up to this point is quite how threadbare his analysis and proposals are.

Where things are getting messy, however, is in attacks on Malikane’s academic credentials. These in fact open-up a big can of worms regarding the state of South African academic economics. (One reason I have been delayed in writing a comment on the Malikane’s saga is that I had been drafting a conference paper on what ‘decolonisation of the curriculum’ might mean for South African economics).

Understanding Peer Review in Economics

It turns out that the issue of decolonising economics is closely related to some of the misguided aspects of attacks on Malikane. The first, by Stuart Theobald, starts off well enough by noting that Malikane’s published, peer-reviewed work either has relatively little relation to his recent arguments or even – in some cases – seems to contradict those arguments. This is a particularly useful point to make for those who, naively, argue that Malikane’s arguments must be substantive because he has published some academic papers. Where Theobald strays into dangerous territory is in his inferences about Malikane’s integrity and assertions about the wonders of academic peer review.

Theobald’s characterisation of peer review in economics makes me suspect that he has never published anything in the discipline. Very few academics I have come across or read, including Nobel prize winners, have such a rosy view of the peer review process; in practice it is far from the notional ideal of a meritocratic system in which originality and quality are what determine publication. And any problems – of cronyism, bias toward researchers in certain institutions, ideological influences and so forth – are amplified if the basic thrust of your work is critical of, or very different to, the dominant narrative. It does not surprise me that Theobald, given his demographic, views on economic policy and his area of work (banking and finance), might not be able to appreciate this.

Which brings us to the issue of whether Malikane is dishonest for publishing work with conclusions he does not agree with. My short answer: no. It might be inadvisable, and it is something I personally try to avoid doing (at some cost), but the system is structured in such a way that it can self-sabotaging to only publish what you believe rather than what you can do. (Some have suggested that there should be betting markets in which economists show their confidence in their empirical claims by putting money on it). Either you will publish in journals not recognised by your peers, or your career will stall at a junior level – and the associated administration and teaching burdens limiting the very time you need for that ‘against the current’ research that is so good it breaks into the mainstream. When co-authors are involved this is even more difficult. These challenges are essentially what Malikane is gesturing at when he says, quoted by Theobald:

Don’t confuse my academic writing and what I believe to be true…you know the business of publishing is so ideologically poisoned that what is published is not necessarily scientific…we sometimes write in order to simply play in the publishing game…not necessarily because we think what we publish is correct…there is heavy ideological repression in academia…

Theobald paints this as sinister and possibly an “act of intellectual dishonesty”. He softens that with a few acknowledgements that Malikane is basically right, but then returns to a naive notion of academic publishing.

Finally, Theobald makes the important point that we should not try and judge Malikane the person but rather “whether he has good evidence and reasoning for his claims”. Unfortunately, he then goes completely off the rails by saying that: “until [Malikane] publishes them in a way that involves assessment by his peers, we must assume he does not”. Which peers? In what journal? I doubt Malikane would have trouble publishing in the Review of African Political Economy, but would Theobald accept that as adequate? (Leaving aside that he is not an academic economist, so it’s not clear what basis he would use).

Regardless, as an academic economist who has also worked in the public sector, I would never accept a policy claim just because someone had managed to publish a paper on it; the idea that successful peer review in economics shows that a claim is ’right’ is completely misguided, and any economist who advised a minister on that basis should also be fired.

There Are Many Flavours of ‘Bogus Economist’

This usefully brings us to the even more problematic contribution by Co-Pierre Georg. Let me start by saying that I was interested, albeit surprised to see – in Georg’s somewhat crudely-stated concern about ‘white male patriarchs’ – channelling critiques I myself have made in the past of untransformed gerontocracies and academics behaving like rent seekers. I have, also, for some time been politely raising concerns with various role players about such dynamics at an organisation where Georg has been an associate for some time; I hope Georg is as vocal on such matters of principle within his institutions, and even when it is personally inconvenient.

The basic assertion of Georg’s article is that people should not trust ‘bogus economists’. Hard to disagree with, but the devil is in the detail. In my draft conference paper on decolonisation, I made some similar critiques of the quality of the local academic economics to those discussed by Georg. Beyond that, though, we are again in swampy terrain. Georg’s assertion basically translates as: ‘people should not trust economists I think are bogus, which obviously doesn’t include me, my co-authors, patrons, friends, etc’. It’s not a new trick, including for fake radicals in economics. In a recent comment an otherwise respected senior scholar in macroeconomics (Paul Romer) published a rather disgraceful attack on various other economists for what he calls ‘mathiness’. Among these was one of the most famous female economists of the 20th century, Joan Robinson, who by virtue of her gender, left-wing views, and being dead, was perhaps an obvious target for Romer. Critiques of excessive or inappropriate use of mathematics in economics are as old as the modern version of the discipline itself. But a close reading of Romer’s critique reveals a petty, self-serving definition of the crime: when economists he doesn’t like use mathematics they are guilty of mathiness, whereas when economists he does like (obviously including himself) use mathematics then it’s done properly. Georg’s argument boils down to a similarly crude skeleton. (Romer, incidentally, was then appointed chief economist at the World Bank – illustrating how dysfunctional economics can be in other places).

Furthermore, Georg peddles a version of how economics can inform policy that is popular with certain types of academic economists, but bears little relation to reality. In this model, people who can write the most complex mathematical equations, estimate the most complex econometric models and get published in high-ranked journals are best-positioned to advise on policy. This might be funny if it were not so misguided and, in its own way, dangerous. There are some individuals who have managed to make the transition from producing cutting-edge academic work (by mainstream standards) to giving good policy advice, but it is the exception rather than the norm. The last thing a finance minister needs is some social incompetent who thinks he can figure-out a policy solution by writing down an equation, running a model or looking for a ‘peer-reviewed solution’. If you need an academic perspective, your adviser talks to a deputy director general who gets someone in the research cluster to do it, or outsources it to an academic like Georg.

Yet Georg goes even further, offering to define for us what a ‘proper academic’ is. But the best he can do in this regard, like Theobald, is to refer to ‘peer review’. I have already made clear that this is a naïve, and in Georg’s case arguably self-serving, use of the notion of peer review. One can tell that Georg, like Theobald, is not exactly familiar with the challenges of swimming against the current. Or, in fact, advising on broad economic policy in the complex South African terrain.

A Necessary Debate

 In some ways, the great tragedy of the Malikane saga is that, in principle, he should have been in a position to be a very good adviser – albeit one with strong left-wing views. While the likes of Theobald and Georg might be good advisors at lower levels of the hierarchy on specific issues relating to banking and finance, Malikane’s broad credentials should have made him a better choice for a general adviser to a minister. Given that, fortunately, it looks like his manifesto will have no impact whatsoever – with various politicians suddenly realising that talking-up radical economic transformation is a bad idea if it means emptying the fiscus you had planned on appropriating – the most harm done is to Malikane himself. But he has also damaged the possibility of more open discussions about economic and fiscal policy, which means that in fact those who should be most angry with him are economists (including myself) who believe such a conversation is sorely needed.

The bigger picture that Theobald and Georg’s misplaced attacks draw attention to is the state of South African academic economics. Some time ago as a student I witnessed the destructive consequences of the failure by some, otherwise very respectable, academics to reconcile tensions within the local discipline. The result, I think, has been for many to bury their heads in the sand and hope for the best. Or, less innocently, to set-up fiefdoms in which they can propagate their own views and agendas without the inconvenience of differing views.

To be fair to economists, similar behaviour happens in a range of other South African academic disciplines. However, besides the fact that this is an unhealthy state of affairs, legitimate calls for transformation and decolonisation (appropriately defined) will only ratchet-up these tensions and it would be best to address them openly and as maturely as we can. The position I have come to is in some ways rather obvious: we need to raise standards, but we also need a wide diversity of views and therefore should be pluralist in our approach to defining who is a competent economist (academic or otherwise). In that context, we would be advised to avoid doing things like accusing a fellow academic of not being a ‘proper economist’ or being ‘intellectually dishonest’, when they have a PhD from a very reputable North American institution, some competent publications, and extensive engagement and knowledge of South African civil society. When the institutional winds change, you may find that the knives are in your own back. These are surely not the kind of dynamics we want to encourage.

Reshuffles, downgrades and South Africa’s public finance drama

The last week has been tumultuous for many South Africans, not least if you are an economist concerned with public finances and the associated political economy dynamics. I had predicted that the President would make another attempt at a finance ministry-targeted reshuffle some time from the end of March onwards. The basis for that prediction was the timing of Parliament’s recess period, as I discuss in greater detail in this article.

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Zapiro: “Shift happens”

The new Minister has been brought in on the back of the President’s (empty) rhetoric about ‘radical economic transformation’ to benefit the majority of poor, black South Africans, but he is known more for his snappy dressing than radicalism; if the FT is correct about his favoured brand, then two of his many ties would equate to the proposed new monthly minimum wage. The combination of supposedly radical rhetoric with personal profligacy is on its own questionable, but there are many more reasons to be concerned.

It was therefore not a great surprise to many analysts when S&P downgraded South Africa’s foreign currency sovereign debt rating to sub-investment grade (‘junk’). After the downgrade by S&P, which I had also expected having paid close attention to presentations at their one-day conference in Johannesburg only a couple of weeks earlier, I provided some commentary with an emphasis on the reasons for the downgrade and possible economics and public finance implications. One of these interviews, with Ayabonga Cawe at PowerFM, is available here. In the first interview I did, on KayaFM, I made a deliberate point of stating that we should not allow anyone to mystify the obvious: that Gordhan has been removed for similar reasons to Nene, implying ‘capture of the state’ (as per the Public Protector’s report). In that context, the new finance minister simply lacks credibility and any statements made about continuity and protecting the fiscus will likely be taken with a pinch of salt.

With the inconvenient oversight of Minister Gordhan removed, the South African Revenue Services announced its final revenue collection figures for 2016/17 in a chummy press conference with the new Minister. This attempted to paint a R30bn revenue undercollection (relative to the revenue forecast in the 2016 Budget) as a success, because it exceeded the 2017 Budget forecast (i.e. the one revised down by R30bn) by R0.0003bn… Unfortunately, many journalists reporting on that event were taken in by the claims of success. I had already dealt with much of this in an article in the Finance Mail. In fact, given concerns about SARS delaying refunds to inflate collection figures, and given inadequate data submitted to Parliament, I have submitted a formal request for more detailed data to SARS and hope to follow-up on that in due course.

Needless to say, the capture of the Finance Ministry makes Parliament’s oversight role even more critical. But as I have argued in some detail (here and here), and ventilated in my CCMA case, the Parliamentary Budget Office is neither equipped, nor inclined, to provide the robust analytical support expected of it under the Money Bills Act (2009). I will have more to say about this in due course.

After the decision by S&P, Fitch has now also downgraded South Africa’s foreign and local currency sovereign debt rating: setting the stage for more dramatic consequences if another agency also downgrades local currency debt to ‘junk’.

These are dangerous times for the South African fiscus, economy and society at large.

Presentation to Parliament’s finance committees

I am now affiliated to the new Public and Environmental Economics Research Centre (PEERC) at the University of Johannesburg, within which I intend to continue putting my public finance and public economics knowledge to good use.

As already noted, I recently published an article on the legislative process that guides the adoption of Budget proposals by Parliament.

And this week, along with my colleague Jugal Mahabir (who has experience at National Treasury and the Financial and Fiscal Commission), we made a short presentation to the finance committees on the fiscal framework and revenue proposals.

The time available (4-5 days between the tabling of the Budget and the submission of public comment) limits the depth and sophistication of the analysis, but with greater preparation this is something I hope to improve on at each successive iteration.

Economics: scientists and plumbers, or bullshit and mathiness?

On the 6th of January 2017 the Annual American Economic Association conference is scheduled to host a plenary address entitled The Economist as Plumber: Large Scale Experiments to Inform the Details of Policy Making. The speaker is the academic economist Esther Duflo, widely-acclaimed for popularising the use of randomised control trials (RCTs).

Given my PhD work in economics on external validity of RCTs and implications for policy, and parallel work in philosophy, I have a few thoughts on this subject. In a draft paper (first presented in 2015) entitled When is Economics Bullshit? I argue that practitioners promoting RCTs have systematically overstated the policy-relevance of results and thereby produced ‘bullshit’ (as defined in the famous essay by philosopher Harry Frankfurt).

A consistent problem in critiquing so-called ‘randomistas’ is that the goalposts have been constantly shifted. Early advocacy for RCTs within economics reflected a ‘missionary zeal’ (Bardhan). It has been suggested that experimental methods have led to a ‘credibility revolution‘: giving credibility to applied microeconomic work that apparently did not exist before. One recipient of the Bates Clarke medal argued that the introduction of RCTs indisputably rendered economics ‘a science’. In the policy domain I, along with other economists, have come across much grander and/or more extreme claims. But when challenged, proselytisers scale back the claims and deny ever overclaiming. So from missionary zeal, revolution and science we now have plumbing….

I look forward to reading Duflo’s speech/paper, but my own view of the methodology and philosophy of economics and RCTs suggests that plumbing is a very poor analogy.

In my own paper, motivated in part by claims that RCTs render economics ‘a science’, I tackle the question of scientific status head on. Using a revival of the so-called demarcation question (basically: how do we demarcate science from non-science or pseudoscience?) in philosophy, I argue that economics cannot (yet) be classified as a science, may never be classifiable as such and in the way it is used by some economists too-often verges on pseudoscience and/or bullshit.

The similarities between this very critical view and that of Romer’s recent critique of macroeconomics (which was made public later) are interesting. Romer focuses more on the use of mathematical modelling whereas my focus is on empirical methods. I will write a detailed comment on Romer’s piece later this year; I agree with some aspects but strongly disagree with others.

In its two presentations so far, my paper on bullshit has been relatively well-received by philosophers of science but not so well-received by philosophers of economics. There is good reason for this: the paper is even more an indictment of the current trend in philosophy of economics than it is of economics itself. The paper notes that in the absence of sufficient technical training and understanding of economics, philosophers in this area have increasingly taken the safer route of becoming apologists for the discipline. In effect, they compete to provide explanations of why economists are correct in their approach. (Exceptions to this, such as Nancy Cartwright – who has collaborated with Angus Deaton in providing important and influential critiques of RCTs – arguably prove the rule: Cartwright’s reputation was already established in philosophy of physics, causality and metaphysics).

The result, unfortunately, is that philosophy of economics currently has very little to add to economists’ critical understanding of their own discipline. Some critics, such as Skidelsky, argue that economists should read more philosophy, but while I am sympathetic to his overall stance I do not think economists would find much worth reading at present. Combining the abject failure of the ‘mainstream’ of philosophy of economics with the low quality of most economists’ reflections on methodological issues leaves us with few critical insights that could move the discipline beyond parochial or self-interested debates.

Some thoughts on Taylor and Watson’s (2015) RCT on the impact of study guides on school-leaving results in South Africa

Since 2010 most of my time spent on academic research has focused on two particular areas:

  1. The use of randomised control trials (RCTs) to support inappropriate, or overly strong, policy claims or recommendations
  2. Empirical examples of how this has manifested in the economics of education.

I was therefore somewhat frustrated when I attended a presentation at the Economic Society of South Africa conference in 2013 to find some rather strong policy claims being made on the basis of what is very weak evidence (even by the standards of practitioners favouring RCTs). I raised my concerns with the relevant author, but I see that the recently-published working paper contains the same problems.

It therefore seems appropriate to summarise my concerns with this work: partly so that interested parties can understand its flaws, but mainly to provide an illustration of how the new fad for RCT-based policy is often oversold.[1] That’s important, because despite seemingly ample evidence I often get economists saying: “Oh but no-one really uses RCT results in that way”.

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